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A turning point in Alexander Buster Deputie’s life came one day when a friend pulled him aside at church.
At the time, Buster Deputie and his wife, Cassie, were already supporting their four children (they have seven now). To help, Buster Deputie enrolled his family in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. Enrolling in a program like SNAP was familiar to him: His family collected aid for years after coming to Minnesota from Liberia as refugees in 1991.
But then his church buddy presented a different take: He explained to Buster Deputie that the Bible instructs husbands and fathers to provide for their families. The government aid he received from a program like SNAP, Buster Deputie’s friend told him, comes off the backs of others.
“That actually broke me,” said Buster Deputie, now 35. “The idea for me was that, as a man, I can do it. Why am I not doing it?”
After weeks of deliberation, he decided to take his family off SNAP. (He recalled a 45-minute argument with a social worker who insisted his family should stay on the program.) Buster Deputie’s job working at a warehouse wasn’t enough to provide for his family, so he enrolled in night school. Eventually, Buster Deputie got an associate degree in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning maintenance.
“I would work from five in the morning and get home at nine o’clock at night, Monday through Friday,” he said. “And then study on the weekends, study whenever I could.”
Today, Buster Deputie owns his own HVAC business. He’s also active in local politics, running a longshot political campaign for state Senate to represent St. Paul’s East Side. What makes Buster Deputie unusual isn’t just the fact that he’s a Republican: Immigrant voters supported Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016 by a two-to-one margin, for example. It’s how he makes his immigrant experience central to his conservative platform.
Sporting dreadlocks and a beard, Buster Deputie doesn’t look like a typical Republican Party politician. But his policies align well with the party’s. He supports President Donald J. Trump, police, and gun rights. And he opposes abortion access and unauthorized immigration.
He believes his message supporting the Constitution and promoting the responsibility of American citizenship can find an untapped audience. His district is 25 percent immigrant and two-thirds people of color, according to Minnesota Compass, a nonprofit data site.
“Because I am Black and because I’m an immigrant, people naturally relate to me,” Buster Deputie said. “But as soon as they find out I’m a Republican, that’s where the conversation comes.”
Most recent arrivals and former refugees vote Democrat because the party seeks them out, Buster Deputie said. Indeed, his opponent is Democrat Foung Hawj, a former Hmong refugee. Hawj has served in the state Senate for eight years and won his previous two elections with more than 70 percent of the vote.
Buster Deputie said Republicans have a similar opportunity to reach immigrant voters.
“I think Republicans should go after immigrants and educate them on what it means to be an American,” he said. “You come to this country and you want to produce. If everybody is producing, the country becomes more prosperous.”
Failing the citizenship test inspired a passion for the Constitution
Though the experience of getting off SNAP marked a key point in his political evolution, Buster Deputie said the journey really began earlier. In 2011, he became a U.S. citizen after living in Minnesota for 20 years.
The first time he took his citizenship test, he failed. “I couldn’t even name my two U.S. senators,” Buster Deputie said.
Embarrassed, Buster Deputie studied U.S. history and quickly got hooked. When he made his way to the U.S. Constitution, he said he fell in love. Now, he teaches independent classes about the country’s founding document on the side for the Institute on the Constitution, a conservative think tank.
Buster Deputie’s platform can be distilled into two basic principles central to his beliefs.
“An American is an idea that people can come here and they can literally become something—anything that they want to be,” he said. “And there is a system in place that allows that, which is our Constitution.”
His interest in the Constitution and U.S. citizenship prompted him to start visiting the state capitol two years ago. He followed the issues with great interest, sometimes bringing his family along. He started meeting with his representatives and opposing legislation that he believed ran contrary to the Constitution.
Among the bills Buster Deputie opposed is the so-called “red flag” bill. This would allow law enforcement to seize firearms from gun owners who a court deemed a danger to themselves or to others.
The Democrat-controlled state House of Representatives passed a red flag law earlier this year, but the Senate, which is controlled by Republicans, never voted on it.
Buster Deputie said the legislation is a violation of the Second Amendment. And he brought up his history fleeing war-torn Liberia as central to his opposition.
“Coming from a country where genocide happened, I noticed the other side had guns and everybody else didn’t,” he said. “We are headed that way. You are restricting us law-abiding citizens because of what criminals are doing. I felt that that was wrong. That is not how you properly legislate.”
An immigrant argues for Trump’s immigration limits
On immigration, Buster Deputie follows the Republican Party line. But again, he cites his personal experience as central to his beliefs on the issue. He opposes unauthorized immigration, arguing it’s unfair to families like his who waited for two years in a refugee camp in the Ivory Coast while being vetted.
“We have a system where people come here legally,” he said. “Whether it’s through getting their permanent residency, or whatever it is, those things are set in place so people can come here legally.”
Buster Deputie even supports tighter vetting on admitting refugees to the U.S., an immigation avenue that the Trump administration sharply reduced. He argues that the process isn’t as stringent as it used to be.
As for President Donald Trump’s frequent attacks against refugees, like warning during a rally last week that Joe Biden will “turn Minnesota into a refugee camp,” Buster Deputie dismisses it as rhetoric.
“Anybody can turn a sound bite into good or bad,” Buster Deputie said. “When you start looking up people’s policies, it tells you a lot about them. If you look at the Democratic platform and their policies in giving people asylum who came here illegally, it tells you who they really are.”
Making the case against public benefits
Buster Deputie has first hand experience receiving public benefits. And it led him to conclude these programs should be temporary. He supports putting limitations on how long people can be enrolled in programs like SNAP.
When he decided to put his family on SNAP benefits, Buster Deputie said he meant it to be temporary. “But you know how that is,” he said. “Whenever you start something temporary, it gets easy to get sucked into it.”
Buster Deputie’s political beliefs unfailingly point to personal responsibility: Everybody should have the ability to change their lives, like he did. He sees the ability to control your own fate as a gift of American society.
Before he launched his campaign and platform, Buster Deputie spoke with his older family members to recount their experiences leaving Liberia. He wanted to remember it better. One story, which he was too young to fully recollect, stood out to him.
During the civil war in Liberia, when Buster Deputie was four or five years old, a group of militiamen came into their neighborhood and lined up several people, including his family. But when one of the men recognized Buster Deputie’s grandmother, who worked as a school teacher, they released the family.
Today, Buster Deputie said his grandmother’s legacy as a teacher saved their family’s lives.
“I just didn’t grasp what was happening at the time, and that was a pretty big one,” he said, laughing. “I could have been dead at the time!”